NASCAR's Round of 12 begins with Chevrolet behind the eight ball
The 2018 Chevrolet Camaro was supposed to bulldoze the NASCAR competition. New car models in this sport typically lead to dominant performances, especially from the sport’s most successful manufacturer. Millions get poured into wind tunnel testing, development and engineering support to ensure fresh chassis lead to fruitful results.
But when it comes to this season, the Bowtie Brigade has fallen flat. Heading to Dover International Speedway, the site of their top veteran Jimmie Johnson’s best on-track results, the car still looks to be down a cylinder. Johnson is out of title contention, victimizing himself in a banzai move in the final two turns that cost him a win at Charlotte’s inaugural ROVAL race. Misjudging the corner, Johnson went spinning along with leader Martin Truex Jr. By the time he got going, his best run of the season turned into a disappointing eighth.
Chevy’s hope for another victory, or perhaps even a championship, may have gone with it. They’ve won just twice this season: with Austin Dillon in the season-opening Daytona 500 and Chase Elliott in the August race at Watkins Glen. It’s the lowest total for the manufacturer since 1981.
That year, another GM product, Buick, dominated the NASCAR competition. But there’s no alternate pick for them this year; instead, it’s Ford who’s bulldozing past each week. In position to capture the manufacturer’s championship, this year’s Blue Oval crop sports seven of the 12 playoff drivers, including two of the top-tier favorites: Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski.
Chevy, by comparison, starts this round with their three remaining options on the outside looking in on NASCAR’s Round of 8. Elliott, their only winner, has been down on speed this season with intermediate ovals. Kyle Larson has been characterized by rough luck, needing to ride the outside wall at Charlotte video-game style with a damaged car simply to even make the Round of 12. And their third option, Alex Bowman, hasn’t even won a Cup Series race.
The crumbling of Chevrolet is surprising considering they field more cars on a weekly basis (18) than any other in the field. But they’re also a group in transition. Hendrick Motorsports has lost Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne in recent years, replacing them with young 20-something talents that need time to develop. Stewart-Haas Racing, Hendrick’s primary Chevy partner, also jumped over to Ford. That leaves middling Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing as next in line to help; they’re a step behind their rivals in both resources and equipment. Both teams will undergo driver changes for 2019 as veterans Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman are moving on. Other middle-class operations like JTG-Daugherty Racing are getting a full-scale overhaul after years of disappointing results.
The move to get younger (Ryan Preece, for example, is moving to JTG) should position Chevy well over the long run. But they still have some of the best mechanical minds in the sport in crew chiefs like Chad Knaus, Alan Gustafson and Chad Johnston. On paper, the Camaro shouldn’t be suffering as much as it has. It’s not like Hendrick was ever hurting for resources and engineering.
The bottom line is the Camaro didn’t deliver on speed and handling with the 2018 NASCAR package the way in which this manufacturer believed. The expected late-season surge after months to tinker with the product never happened. It still feels like Chevrolet would be better off with the Chevy SS and the results back that up.
It’s a good lesson for Ford to learn as they plan to replace their aging Fusion with the Mustang for 2019. Sometimes, newer doesn’t necessarily mean better. Chevy’s disappointment and their resulting invisibility could just as easily happen to them next season.
Gander Outdoors 400
Time: 2:00 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Dover International Speedway (Dover, Del.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Ryan Blaney
Say what? It looked like at times Blaney might not even make the next round of the postseason at Charlotte’s ROVAL despite winning a stage. But a frenetic finish at the sport’s inaugural running on this road course provided an opening. First, teammate Brad Keselowski slammed into the tire barriers while leading on a restart; the resulting melee took out several top contenders.
Blaney squeaked past on the inside, gaining several spots in the process and seemed content with a top-five, playoff-advancing finish. But the last lap provided more good luck, a Jimmie Johnson-Martin Truex Jr. spinout leaving third-place Blaney in the perfect position to capitalize. It was just his second Cup Series victory and his first officially running for Team Penske.
“Whenever you win something like this, it’s a weird feeling,” he said. “I don’t really want to call it an undeserved feeling, but it’s just kind of an odd feeling. But we put ourselves in a good spot, and it worked out for us.”
Who’s at the Back: Denny Hamlin
Johnson’s very public failure to advance overshadowed fellow veteran Hamlin’s fall from grace. After a late caution cost him a win at Indianapolis, Hamlin was despondent and a source close to the team told me they were worried about the driver’s confidence.
Unfortunately, they got proven right. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota just never seriously contended at any of the three postseason races to date. Runs of 32nd, 16th and 12th came with one lap led and wasted the momentum they had from the regular season finale. What’s worse, Hamlin tumbled backwards each week despite top-five starting spots at both Las Vegas and Richmond.
Now, the focus should be on Hamlin’s race-winning streak. Johnson has gone the last 16 years with a victory in each season but Hamlin’s next up, at 12 and his mark is similarly impressive. Can either one break through their slump before the year is complete?
The Charlotte ROVAL paid off with NASCAR’s first natural TV ratings increase all year. The jump to a 1.95 Nielsen rating was a six percent increase from 2017 while viewership increased 13 percent to 3.218 million. Those numbers will be taken into consideration when NASCAR looks to radically revamp its schedule as early as 2020. Tracks like Pocono, Indianapolis, Chicagoland, Kansas and many others may consider a road course-like format within their oval for one of the races they host each year.
Kasey Kahne still has not been medically cleared to return to NASCAR competition. The veteran, retiring from stock car racing at the end of this season, has been suffering from dehydration-related issues that caused him to seek medical treatment after the Southern 500 at Darlington last month. Regan Smith will continue to sub as Leavine Family Racing seeks a permanent, full-time driver to replace Kahne in the No. 95 for 2019.
Obaika Racing will make their Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut next week. The once-underfunded XFINITY Series team bought some equipment from BK Racing during their bankruptcy and plans to run the No. 97 Toyota with a driver to be announced. Associate sponsorship will come from Space Grill.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Lead changes at the Charlotte ROVAL Sunday in 109 laps on its road course.
Lead changes at the Charlotte 1.5-mile oval this May for the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR’s longest race of the season won by Kyle Busch.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
The Big Three (Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr.) are hard to ignore at Dover after a rained-out qualifying session puts all the playoff drivers up front. Each of them has won a race at Dover since 2016, with only a Jimmie Johnson win sandwiched in between. Among the trio, it’s Truex who has the best track record, posting an average finish of 12.9 and four consecutive top-five results. Growing up on the nearby Jersey Shore, Truex considers Dover his home track and will be a formidable foe in his final start driving the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota on the Monster Mile.
There are a lot of great options here. Kyle Larson hasn’t won at Dover but has led 378 laps in the last three races here. The No. 42 Chevrolet team also is energized after Jimmie Johnson’s last-lap scuffle at Charlotte opened the door for them to stay in title contention. Chase Elliott and Daniel Suarez also are solid young options; they both have average finishes better than sixth in their short time competing at the track.
But for me, I have to believe Johnson is using what happened at Charlotte as a motivator. Johnson has 11 career wins at this track, more than any other driver in NASCAR history and ran a credible ninth in the spring. It’s hard to see him outside the top 10 here as the No. 48 team seeks a bounce-back performance from playoff elimination.
Leavine Family Racing has had two top-20 finishes at Dover in its last three starts. Kasey Kahne ran 19th in the spring while Michael McDowell had a similar effort in the spring of 2017. Can Regan Smith continue the trend? He’s done a solid job in the car, posting three top-20 finishes in four starts and a higher average finish (19.5) than Kahne. With Silly Season still unsettled, could another strong run by Smith put him under consideration for the ride full-time?
Matt Kenseth is driving a car that ran inside the top 20 here in the spring with Trevor Bayne. A streak of five straight top-12 Dover finishes, including a win in the spring of 2016 was completed with much better equipment. But you shouldn’t write Kenseth off; he’s a sneaky contender for a 12th- to 15th-place finish under the right circumstances.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick edges the other two drivers in the Big Three with 5/2 odds this weekend. Kyle Busch is at 3/1 followed by Martin Truex Jr.
What I Think
It’s been a wild first round but I think NASCAR is due for a settled race up front. Truex brings some sanity back, winning at his home track after coming close in each of the first three playoff races this season.